For millions of dog lovers fond of hollering “sit” and “good boy” across the nation’s parks, it is scientific evidence for what they will have long believed – the average pooch shares with its owner the ability to understand human speech.
Scientists in Hungary claim to have found proof that canines use both sides of their brains to understand the meaning as well as the intonation of words in much the same way that human beings process language.
Say it like you mean it The researchers, who scanned the brains of 13 dogs including Border Collies and Golden Retrievers as they were listening to commands from their owner to track neural activity, found that the animals knew they were being praised only when both the word and the emotion behind it were positive.
Findings published in the journal Science showed that when meaningless words were spoken in an encouraging voice or praise was delivered in a neutral tone, the dogs did not register the same neural effect.
Put in another way, simply saying “good dog” will not do the trick – the owner has to mean it. Praise works better The research will further challenge the assumptions of dog disciplinarians such as the late Barbara Woodhouse, whose famously curt orders of “Sit!” and “Walkies!” underpinned a belief that dogs respond best to a strict regime.
More recent studies have shown that pooches trained using petting and praise respond better to their owners’ commands.Lead researcher Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said: “Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it. Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.”
The study used an MRI scanner to monitor the reactions of a range of dogs aged from one to 12 kept as family pets to three “praising” phrases – “that’s it”, “clever”, “well done” – and three “neutral” words unlikely to be used to address an animal – “as if”, “such”, “yet”.
The results showed that the animals used the left hemisphere of their brains process the meaning of the word and the right hemisphere to recognise the emotion behind it, bringing both reflexes together to achieve understanding in the same way as humans.
Attuned to human mood – can understand 1000 words Co-habitation over thousands of years between man and his best friend has probably made dogs more attuned to human mood and language, according to the study. Previous research has shown that dogs can act upon up to 1,000 separate words whereas, for example, wolves have little or no receptiveness to speech.
But the scientists said their findings suggest the ability to process language is far from being a uniquely human trait and the skill developed earlier in the evolutionary cycle than previously thought.
What sets homo sapiens apart is that they were the only ones who got around to actually inventing words. Andics said: “The neural capacities to process words that were thought by many to be uniquely human are actually shared with other species.
This suggests that the big change that made humans able to start using words was not a big change in neural capacity.” The researchers underlined that each of the dogs, including a German Alsatian and a Chinese Crested, was happy to enter the MRI scanner and were awake and unrestrained.